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The inconspicuous radio relay

by Col. Kenneth Shiflet

"Despite the vast distances often separating units across the front, at no time was any command farther away than the instrument on my field desk," said Gen. Omar Bradley of Signal Corps men in July 1944. Signalmen would earn Bradley's tribute that year in the deep Belgian snows and biting weather.

In the Allies' crucial reaction to the Germans' sudden thrust into the Ardennes around Christmastime, control of forces was paramount. The ability to realign, amass and move units immediately was synonymous with survival. Tactical communications meant the difference between defeat and successful counterattack.

Wide-scale radio and wire integrated communications put in and defended by signalmen enabled Gen. George Patton to dispatch his 3d Army forces against the Nazis with incredible speed. These communications provided Bradley command-and-control of his troops when containing the German offensive and the Allied counterattack were at stake.

Bradley made the telephone and radio link's importance even more graphically clear in his A Soldier's Story:

"Those orders ... were transmitted easily over the most valued accessory of all — the elaborate telephone system we carried with us into the field. From my desk in Luxembourg I was never more than 30 seconds by phone from any of the armies. If necessary, I could have called every division on the line. Signal Corps officers like to remind us that 'although Congress can make a general, it takes communications to make him a commander.' The maxim was never more brilliantly evidenced than in this battle for the Ardennes."

The connecting system — the radio relay — between telephones and teletypewriters was especially important. Many lines were cut in the German breakthrough and penetration. Others stayed in, mainly the very-high-frequency radio relays operated over enemy forces' heads.

Many relay stations — directly in the path of the onrushing Nazis — had to be taken down in a firefight, loaded quickly and reprofiled into the communications system by their crews. The Ardennes' December weather didn't make resitings any easier.

In one critical instance, eight Signal Corps soldiers from Bradley's 12th Army Group's signal section — helped by 12 guards from 825th Tank Destroyer Battalion — fought to defend their radio-relay sites and keep them operating. Their last location, two relays near Jemelle, Belgium, had been overrun by the Germans on Christmas Eve.

The Germans unknowingly set up antiaircraft guns near the Americans' new radio-relay station — fortunately, the Nazi troops seemed more concerned with Allied air tactics. Their eyes on the sky, they failed to notice the station no more than a third of a mile away from them.

The signalmen took advantage of it. They kept operating the relay, passing vital combat traffic that was ordering and moving forces to drive the Germans back.

The noisy power generators supporting the VHF relay had to be scheduled because they were so close to the enemy. During the day, when troop sounds and battle noises were loudest, the Signal Corps men ran the gasoline generators keeping their relay on the air — shutting down the power units in the comparative quiet of night and slacker communication periods.

Because of the careful day and night scheduling, the forgotten radio relay continued to pass a heavy traffic volume under the Germans' noses.

It was important traffic to the American forces. The inconspicuous relay was the only communications channel between 12th Group and 9th Army at Maastrict, and between 12th Group and 1st Army at Spa. However, probably few generals, relaying their commands and instructions, knew a small, isolated group of signalmen on a hill only two football fields from the advancing enemy, were part of the link.

Late one afternoon the Germans started moving directly toward the radio relay. There were more enemy troops coming toward them than the small complement could handle, but no one bolted for the next hill.

The first long-range shots sounded — the antenna. The enemy had seen it. The price of the signalmen's communications was also the sign of their identification.

Their carbine fire kept off the leading German soldiers for a while, buying the relay added minutes of command telephone conversation and teletypewriter transmission. The signalmen then began withdrawing toward the radio-relay set. The forest was at their backs, where they could lose themselves in snow-shrouded trees and thick stands.

They had kept on to hold their communications too long, however. The advancing Germans were so close, it was hard to dismantle the equipment and move it back with them. But the signalmen couldn't withdraw with just their rifles and what they carried on their backs. They had their trade equipment — the antrac — to take with them.

They raced about, loosening antenna guys and dropping the antenna, closing up the carrying cases to get their station out. The wind whipped up thin silts of snow. The mottled round helmets of the Germans thickened below them, and fire became heavy on the hill. The tank-destroyer soldiers helped cover them as the signal troops closed their station and began moving it back toward the woods.

Of the 20 men who manned the radio relay, 7 of them reached their own lines. The remaining three, signalmen who stayed with their gear to keep the essential communications working, were lost. One was taken prisoner by the advancing Germans, and the other two were not heard from again.

These men, particularly those who were lost, were undoubtedly part of what Bradley meant in saying, "This maxim of communications was never more brilliantly evidenced than in this battle for the Ardennes."

dividing rule

(Editor's note: This article was adapted from The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, edited by retired LTC Max Marshall, published by Franklin Watts, Inc., New York, 1965. Used by permission. A version of this story originally was published in the Signal Corps' Signals magazine.)

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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